North Carolina reproductive-justice activist Brandi Collins-Calhoun argues that it should also be a guiding principle for journalists today, especially those covering the protests and aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by police.
Early in the evening on June 1, Collins-Calhoun headed to downtown Greensboro. Her destination: a meetup of demonstrators who planned to protest that night—despite an impending 8 pm curfew just instituted by the city’s mayor.
Collins-Calhoun, an organizer with the activist group Greensboro Rising and a contact for the local bail fund, wanted to share important information with those who stayed out and could end up in jail. She gave out her phone number several times to a crowd of about 40 people, even writing it on the arm of one person, before leaving.
“Literally, as soon as I pulled up to my house, the first call came in,” said Collins-Calhoun. “When I picked up, it was immediately, ‘You racist black bitch’ and a lot of tangents telling me that they would come to my home and blow my brains out.”
Over the evening—she answered all calls, in case protesters landed in lockup—she fielded about 10 threatening phone calls. Some accused of her of being affiliated with antifa, a diffuse anti-fascist movement that reemerged in 2017 to oppose white nationalists after the disastrous and fatal Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Terrified, she fled the apartment she shares with her teen daughter. She didn’t call police; she doesn’t trust them. But an organizing friend did. Law enforcement recorded the few unblocked numbers from which calls originated and told her it was likely these menacing callers could find her address online.
Two days later, Collins-Calhoun figured out just how her unwanted callers got her number.
“I was downtown, and a white woman approached me and was like, ‘Are you okay?’ [I said,] ‘Yeah, what’s up?’ She was just kinda like, ‘You know, I’m so horrified that they put your information on their Facebook like that.’” This stranger had seen a video of Collins-Calhoun giving out her phone number on the Facebook page of the Greensboro daily News & Record—and the hateful comments that ensued.
After finding the video online, Collins-Calhoun wrote her own Facebook post asking the newspaper to remove the video, offer her an apology, and make a contribution to the bail fund (which I knew would be a nonstarter, given how many journalists often avoid political contributions or signaling support for various social causes).
Within a few hours of her post, the newspaper’s Facebook account responded and removed the video. Managing Editor Cindy Loman reached out as well and set up a meeting—a beer summit of sorts—with Collins-Calhoun. According to Collins-Calhoun, Loman said attorneys counseled the publication not to meet any of her demands, but that the newspaper could offer Collins-Calhoun space in the paper and a “platform bigger than Facebook” to air her complaint. Collins-Calhoun declined, telling The Nation that she felt Loman was “smug and unapologetic.” It was a short meeting.
I reached out to Loman for comment. She declined, saying the newspaper was moving its office and the newsroom was short an editor. That’s a shame. I wanted to hear if and how the newspaper is rethinking engagement with protesters during this time. It certainly needs to. The News & Record faces continued tensions with activists whom it covers in the public interest, while other media outlets are also grappling with questions about whether they should, say, be publicizing the addresses of protesters who get arrested.
As a writer and editor who came to this career through the conventional J-school route, I can guess what the newspaper is thinking. I was taught that people addressing crowds in public shouldn’t reasonably have an expectation of privacy (and this was before the ubiquitous smart phone). After all, Collins-Calhoun did give out her own number, and it’s hard to control information once you release it.
Kate Medley, a Durham-based photographer who freelances for The New York Times and other clients, has worked to unlearn the idea that just because someone is in public they want to be photographed.
“I was taught the trade by mostly white people. The media is a white-run institution. And we were taught that when you are on public property, you are quote-unquote ‘fair game’—that legally I, as a photojournalist can capture your likeness and put that on the front page of the newspaper the next day whether you even know that I was there, whether you gave your consent, whether you gave me your name. You don’t have to decide to participate.” But after 15 years in the business, she gets that consent to being photographed is key, and she strives to get the name and the permission of every person she photographs at protests.
Collins-Calhoun remembers being approached by media as she left. She hadn’t noticed them before because they weren’t holding giant cameras or recognizable accoutrements of the professional journalist. A reporter—who Collins-Calhoun thought was from the News & Record—complimented her earrings and asked why she was protesting, but they didn’t talk about much else. But the video had already been posted. That old adage about asking forgiveness for something you’ve already done—rather than permission—doesn’t quite apply here.
As a profession, journalists are biased toward sharing information. That’s our job. Purists will say we don’t need to ask to broadcast information a person shares with others in a public setting.
But as working members of the press, we have to recognize that doing our jobs can mean doing harm—and that part of our jobs should be editorial harm reduction, at least trying to lessen negative consequences for the people we publicize.
Common sense—that old thing—can help here. Jade Wilson is staff photographer at Indy Week newspaper in Durham, and like Medley, is documenting protests and their aftermath in central North Carolina. Wilson says people taking the mic publicly are probably the best assessors of their own risks, but academic knowledge of journalistic ethics can’t replace intuition.
“I didn’t go to journalism school, and I don’t really know the rules of photojournalism. But it’s almost like reading the room, thinking, ‘Maybe this is something that I shouldn’t be photographing.’ I’m out there and I see things, and sometimes, it doesn’t feel right in my stomach.”
It’s not clear that the News & Record journalists knew that was Collins-Calhoun’s personal number. Maybe they didn’t even think about it, or maybe thought—in this day and age of doxxing—that it was a protected number.
But would you want your number blasted on Facebook Live? No one needs a class in journalistic ethics to answer the question. Broadcasting a phone number to thousands of readers-watchers is quite different than a person’s opting to share it with a few dozen politically aligned people on a street corner. And we as people who also happen to be journalists should know that it costs us nothing to apologize and acknowledge that, even if we didn’t act with malice or intent to harm, our actions triggered a chain of scary events.
Most interviewees don’t know that they can negotiate what part of their information a journalist can share. And most journalists don’t tell their sources they have more choice and power in when and how they appear in media than they think.
As a writer who’s covered reproductive health, I’ve often talked to my sources about things that hurt or shamed them, or stigmatizing issues like abortion. Standard journalistic practice be damned, I often preface my interviews with a bit of education about what can happen when people voluntarily share a piece of themselves for publication. It goes something like this:
“Some of what you say to me today is probably going to make it into my story, though I can’t promise it will or what part. Other people will see it. That could be your pastor, your next-door neighbor, your boss at work, your future grandchildren, random strangers who will feel like they can now comment on your life. It may circulate for a long time and keep popping up online. It may be buried in some corner of the Internet. And in terms of this interview, you can stop it anytime or you can tell me something is not for publication, but tell me when we’re back on what we call ‘the record.’ If there’s something you don’t want in print, it’s better not to tell me. And if you think I get something wrong in the story, you can ask for a correction. I want to get it right.”
The very act of writing about someone exposes them to the opinions—good, bad, and ugly—of their fellow Americans. And sometimes to violence. It’s especially true for black people and activists in a country where racist harassment is par for the cultural course and where the FBI labeled many black activists as “identity extremists” who ostensibly pose a threat equivalent to white nationalists in 2019 (but has since abandoned the label, or so it says).
Wilson (who uses “they/them” pronouns) knows this, and sometimes will abstain from taking shots that trouble them. They sometimes struggle with whether that’s the right call. But if they do take potentially controversial or unpalatable images, they also know that they don’t have to publish them or will only publish them with ample context. They also know that photographs can harm in the way they represent people—especially when they primarily depict black violence or black pain, but not black community, joy, or diversity of thought.
Plus, images can also provide fodder for legal prosecution. Wilson very deliberately shies away from taking images that might implicate, but sometimes things change quickly on the ground.
Take a moment recently when protesters took down Confederate statues in Raleigh and then strung one up on a streetlight—an image that Wilson got on film.
“It happened so fast, and I’m like, how can I position myself to not get anything—not just their faces, but even clothing that could be matched to someone else’s photo that their face was shown in earlier. I crop things out. There was this one person that kneeled on the neck of the statue, and I cropped out his sock because I don’t know his involvement.… I’m not about to take any chances with this because there were so many people with cameras out there. And I want to err on the side of being careful, to be sure that [nothing] could lead to someone being charged.… I had this feeling, I just wanted to shout to everyone, ‘Put your phone down, put your camera down!’”
Oriana Koren, a Los Angeles–based photographer who’s part of a group that this week launched a Photo Bill of Rights for visual artists, said that rebuilding a more equitable media sector “requires rebuilding the ideology around it or the values around it. We recognized that there was no standard for how we should behave as photographers and also as ethical and moral beings.”
Durham photographer Medley thinks about the power imbalance between journalist and subject often—and of a moment when she was a green photojournalist attending an intensive training. She and other newbies were sent out to research a particular man, a colorful figure who had a few previous arrests. They dug up everything on him and proudly presented their findings to an audience that included their trainers—and the man himself, who sat in the front row watching as they dissected his life.
“We had that moment where you’re like, What have I gleefully done here? What have I accomplished? What have I done to this guy’s life? … [The trainers said] when you report on the story, when you publish a story, that subject is going to wake up the next morning, they’re going to pour their cup of coffee. They’re going to sit down with their family and open the newspaper and read it. They said to never forget that feeling. Which, of course, we all have.”